Rossini's opera is in two acts and takes place at a seaside palace in Algiers. As ACT ONE begins, the lady of the house, Elvira, is complaining to her servants that her husband Mustafà, the local ruler, no longer loves her. The servants aren't much comfort; they tell her there's not much she can do about it. When Mustafa enters in a huff, and promptly sends Elvira away, it seems the servants are right.
Mustafà says he's tired of his wife and decides to give her to Lindoro, a young Italian man recently kidnapped on the high seas by Mustafá's pirates. As for Mustafà himself, he wants a woman from Italy, and orders his captain Haly to find him one.
Lindoro, meanwhile, is miserable. He's in love with an Italian woman, Isabella, but she was lost when the pirates captured him. Mustafà tells Lindoro to perk up. He can have Elvira instead.
Anna Bonitatibus ............ Isabella
Lawrence Brownlee ......... Lindoro
Luciana Di Pasquale ...... Mustafà
Riccardo Novale ............... Taddeo
Alexandre Diakoff ............... Haly
Elizabeth Bailey .................. Elvira
Antoinette Dennefeld ...... Zulma
Lausanne Chamber Orchestra
Lausanne Opera Chorus
Ottavio Dantone, conductor
In the next scene, there's a shipwreck, and the survivors who come ashore include Isabella. She's quickly taken prisoner by Mustafà's men, and laments the cruelty of fate; the wreck has interrupted her search for Lindoro, her lost fiancé. Still, despite her perilous situation, she's not worried. She's confident in her own cleverness — and in her powers over men. When it comes down to it, Isabella says, all men are basically the same, and she intends to prove it.
The pirates have also seized Taddeo, an aging admirer of Isabella, and decide to sell him into slavery. But he claims he's Isabella's uncle and can't leave her. When the locals learn that both captives are Italian, they're pleased: surely Isabella will be a perfect addition to Mustafà's harem. Taddeo is aghast at how calmly Isabella takes this news, and the two quarrel about his jealousy. Still, they decide they'd better work together.
In the meantime, Mustafà has ordered Lindoro and Elvira to marry — and the servant Zulma tries to tell the couple they should just make the best of it. Mustafà promises Lindoro that he'll be allowed to return home — provided that he takes Elvira with him. Seeing no other choice, Lindoro accepts. Then, when Haly announces the capture of an Italian woman, Mustafà gloats, and goes off to meet her.
In the main hall of the palace, Mustafà welcomes Isabella, while he's hailed by his eunuchs as "the scourge of women." As an aside, Isabella remarks that Mustafà looks ridiculous, and she'll have no trouble dealing with him. In fact, he already seems under her spell.
At first, she seems to throw herself on Mustafà's mercy. And when the jealous Taddeo starts to make a scene, Isabella saves him from Musatafà's anger by saying that Taddeo really is her "uncle."
Elvira and Lindoro then turn up, ready to leave for Italy. But as they're saying good-bye to Mustafà, Lindoro and Isabella recognize each other and exchange secret glances. Isabella takes advantage of Mustafà's clear attraction to her and in a riotous ensemble finale, she persuades him to let Elvira stay. She demands that Lindoro stay on as well, as her own personal servant, leaving Mustafà frustrated and confused.
ACT TWO opens as Elvira and her courtiers are talking about how easily this Italian girl has dominated Mustafà. The poor man has fallen for her, head over heels, and to keep her happy, Mustafà gives her aging companion Taddeo the honorary title of "Kaimakan," and dresses him in a Turkish uniform.
In the next scene, Isabella puts on Turkish clothing herself and prepares to entertain Mustafà, who is expecting a private meeting. Isabella tells Elvira that the only way she's going to hold onto her husband is by being more assertive. Just watch, she says, and follow my lead. To keep Mustafà eager, Isabella keeps him waiting. Then, she finally admits him to her rooms, she invites Elvira to stay for coffee. Finally, when Isabella insists that Mustafà treat his wife better, he erupts in anger. Isabella still seems unconcerned.
As Lindoro and Taddeo plan their escape, Taddeo claims that he is the man Isabella truly loves. Lindoro finds this amusing, but realizes he still needs Taddeo's help, so he pretends to believe it.
Mustafà soon enters, still furious. Lindoro says Isabella actually cares very much for Mustafà and wants to prove it with a ceremony, giving him the honorable Italian position of "Pappataci." Believing this nonsense, Mustafà asks what he has to do. It's simple, says Lindoro. To prove yourself as a Papatacci, you must eat, drink and sleep all you like, while staying oblivious to everything that happens around you.
In her apartment, Isabella gets ready for Mustafà's indoctrination. Mustafà arrives, and Lindoro reminds him of the ceremonial procedure. After he's pronounced a Pappataci, he's tested by Isabella and Lindoro. As they pretend to make love, Taddeo reminds Mustafà to ignore them, while eating and drinking to his heart's content — it's all part of his initiation.
As Mustafà fulfills these "duties," a ship draws up in the background. The lovers prepare to embark, along with some other Italian captives. But Taddeo realizes that he's also being tricked — that Isabella really doesn't love him, and intends to be with Lindoro. He tries to rally Mustafà, who persists in keeping his vow, and pays no attention. When Mustafà finally realizes what's going on, the Italians have the situation under control and bid him farewell.
Mustafà has learned his lesson and takes Elvira back, while everyone concludes that the Italian woman was bound get her own way.